Hand-Holding

What do you think of hand holding in games?

Okay, hand holding, it can be a pain, especially in Nintendo games, double especially in Zelda Games.

I think Hand Holding is primarily a User Experience issue. Like, if you use photoshop, or microsoft word, or another such program, it won’t constantly stop you to tell you how to use it, it’ll maybe pop up a tip of the day at the start, which you can disable, and have a separate manual, plus little tooltips reminding you of functions when you hover over things and their key shortcut.

In games, we’ve come to build tutorials into every game, because manuals went the way of the dinosaur.

Old games didn’t need as much tutorialization, because they were simpler. You could figure out the functions really easily through simple experimentation.

Modern games don’t have it that easy, so you need a tutorial at the beginning. You can’t always expect the player to know how to operate something like first person controls, so you need to at least tell them what the controls are, and limit their ability, at least temporarily, to screw themselves over.

However many gamers are already experienced, so they don’t need to do these segments. The ideal thing for these gamers is to avoid any type of tutorial, or allow them to skip it.

The user experience problem is that tutorials will frequently pause the game to open a text box, and there is a delay in time of how long the text box stays open, during which they cannot do anything else. This is exacerbated by having multiple boxes full of text one after another. These interrupt the experience and take time to dismiss. If you’re in the middle of interacting with something, like an enemy encounter, where timing is critical, having a text box pop up means focus is taken away from what you were just focusing on, and when the text box goes away, you need to reacquaint yourself with what was just happening. This is why the tutorial popups in mirror’s edge are irritating. The ones in DMC3 aren’t so great either, but they’re infrequent.

Many games, to avoid having this problem, attach tutorials to specific signs or NPCs that need to be interacted with in order to gain information. Other games like Metroid Prime, Valve games, or Ratchet and Clank, have visible messages on the screen that appear when near a tutorial element, and disappear when you move away or clear the obstruction in your path. These never pause the game or prevent the player from using the normal controls.

I think Dark Souls has a close to optimal method, by having interactable tutorial messages that do not suspend normal controls. Dark Souls 2 and 3 allow you to run past the tutorial areas as well, making the whole thing even more painless.

Picross 3d was pointed out to me. Here’s a playthrough:

Look at how many boxes of text there are, the time it takes for them to finish typing out each letter, the long animations that are played, and no skip option. Plus they occur frequently throughout play.

So what’s the key here? The key is to provide tutorials that guarantee players understand how to interact with the game that can be completed as quickly as possible with as few interruptions as possible, and as little punishment for failure as possible. Let players who are not as experienced take a while to experiment and try things out, and let experienced players breeze through.

This is why the wordless tutorials of games like Portal and Megaman X appeal to so many people. I think the wordless aspect of it is a red herring though. Wordlessness is a design constraint that forces the developer to create an interactive challenge that clearly and explicitly forces the player to understand or be incapable of progressing. It also means you’re not allowed to have interruptions in the form of text boxes, which are extremely common.

However it’s a pain in the ass to just say, “this button does this” without using a text box. It’s such a huge pain, it’s really really not worth whatever elegance you gain from avoiding using a simple text box. Then there’s more subtle things, like say crossups, or EX-ACT timing in DMC4, or animation cancels, that you can’t really teach without a text box of some kind and a player won’t run into through idle experimentation, and a good tutorial that demands use of that thing, but can’t set up a scenario where the player will incidentally do one thing then the other, is simply impossible.

The thing Portal and Antichamber did well was iteration. They tested with people and paid a lot of attention to exactly what players were struggling with, and redesigned repeatedly to make sure players understood the basic concepts, continually bringing in fresh players to get the first impression experience. More details can be found in the developer commentary. I think Portal 2 fell a little short by having the intro with wheatley, which was funny, but time consuming, even excessively so. The tutorial puzzles function great however, unless you’re ijustine.

So basically, just use prompts that don’t take up the whole screen and don’t wrest control away. File them into a tutorial thing if you really want to. Also don’t mark unread tutorials, and especially don’t have the icon on the menu for the tutorials remind you that some are unread. That drove me nuts in playing mankind divided. I’d pick up so much shit, then have it remind me that I hadn’t directly read it every time I opened the menus, even when I saw it when I picked it up.

Also don’t include characters like Fi. Don’t have them repeat the same line unless prompted. Don’t have text boxes that can’t be quickly skipped through, or which wrest control away.

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